The most popular post I’ve ever written is 5 reasons weight lifting is better than cardio. Regardless of any other traffic I receive on my blog in a given day, this one always has the most hits. I think it’s Amanda Latona’s perfect arse that draws people in, but I can’t be sure 😉
I still agree with all of the points I made in that post, but perhaps my thoughts on cardio aren’t quite as extreme these days. I blame too much cardio (combined with undereating, of course) for completely screwing up my body, metabolism and hormones, so I am naturally biased against it. However, I am not the only one to negatively criticise cardio in recent years – it has been attacked for many of the aforementioned reasons.
That said, cardio can still be a valuable tool for both fat loss and overall health, and you certainly shouldn’t give it up if it’s something you enjoy. The good news is that if you hate cardio, you may not have to do it – or at least not for very long!
If your goal is to improve your body composition by building muscle and losing fat, the most important thing to manipulate is your nutrition, followed by the incorporation of resistance training, with cardio coming in at a distant third place. I usually tell people not to worry too much about cardio if they are just starting out on their fat loss journey, as it is more important to get the other two variables right first. Cardio is the final icing on the cake, if you like, and not the central focus.
The amount of cardio I do varies greatly. I live in London, so I walk a lot more than most people realise – whenever I have visitors from Australia or the US, they are shocked at how much walking I do. At an absolute minimum, I will walk for 40 minutes per day, but on almost all days I average closer to 90 minutes. Last week, I walked for 2.5-3 hours daily for three days in a row!
All of this walking is not for exercise. I don’t have a car (and neither do most people in London) so commuting to and from work, the gym, dance classes, shopping trips, and restaurant and bar outings expends a lot of energy. I love walking as it somewhat counteracts all the sitting I do all day, and it is generally a good means of stress relief for me.
I don’t consider any of this strenuous cardio (except for those times I have to sprint to make my train!). Most weeks I don’t do any cardio in addition to walking, but sometimes I have abnormal weeks. This week is a great example – Monday was a holiday here so I did a crap-tonne of walking around central London, I had an extra dance rehearsal on Tuesday and I did 20 minutes of sprints on Wednesday. On Saturday, I will be doing a 2-2.5 hour events training session (which I 100% consider cardio) and on Sunday I will be dancing for another couple of hours.
In contrast, last week I was very lazy as I didn’t lift for the first half of the week so was therefore walking less to and from the gym, and I did no additional cardio outside of my walking. Did I stress out that I wasn’t doing enough cardio and burning enough calories? No.
When I’m about four to six weeks away from a comp, I start incorporating more cardio to ensure my aerobic fitness is up to scratch. This will typically involve one day of sprints (usually only 50 metre lengths for 15-20 minutes at a 1:2 work/rest ratio), one day of events training and one day involving some kind of max rep attempt (only 60 or 120 seconds of exertion in total).
Some days, like this Wednesday, I feel like doing sprints for no other reason than the fact it’s nice outside and I want to clear my head. I don’t think I could ever go for an hour-long run again, but I like having the option of doing what I please and not feeling guilted into doing it (unlike when I forced myself to run every day).
So… how much cardio should you be doing?
The magic question. Unless you are training for an endurance event or you are professional athlete, there is no need to do more than three cardio sessions per week. I exclude walking from this as I think most people would benefit from doing so every single day, as it’s what our bodies were designed to do.
Most people can get away with just one or two intense cardio sessions per week. This can be something like sprints, a metabolic finisher (circuits of kettlebell swings, battle ropes, box jumps, etc) or strongman-style events training (sled and prowler pushes and drags, farmers walks, loading medleys, etc). Keep everything short – my events sessions last hours as I spend a lot of time on technique, but there’s no need to do intense cardio for more than 20-25 minutes.
But, like I said above, make sure your nutrition is mostly under control (not too many but also not too few calories from lots of lean proteins, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables the majority of the time) and you are lifting weights three or four days per week before you add in cardio – unless of course you genuinely love the feeling of a sweaty cardio session, then go right ahead (just please make sure you eat enough to account for all the extra energy expenditure)!
All of what I have said assumes that your number one goal is achieving the best-looking body possible, which is hopefully not the sole reason you train. I think it’s very important to find a type of exercise you love and stick with it, without feeling like you should or shouldn’t be doing something because of some article you read on the internet.
How much cardio do you do? What is your favourite kind of cardio? How much do you walk per day?